How to Be Desirable to Agents and Editors
I’m often asked this question when I speak to groups of writers, as if there’s a magic formula aspiring authors can follow to get an editor to rally behind their book and champion them right into the doors of the publishing house and all the way through publication and beyond.
Unfortunately, there’s not a formula. But there is an art to being a desirable author, which pertains to your relationships with agents and editors. A truly good relationship between agent and author or editor and author is often described by both parties as a meeting of the minds. Although some of what follows should be self-evident in terms of how to get there, I’ve been in this industry long enough to know it is not. So I’m here to share what I’ve come to value most in authors over the course of my publishing career.
• Authors who aren’t overeager. This one’s hard, because most authors are waiting on pins and needles for agents and editors to like their books, to give them validation, to say the magical words: yes! However, if you’re a savvy author, you’ll ask good questions. You will interview your agent and/or editor like you would a real estate agent, or someone who is going to partner with you in business. And when it comes to getting feedback from your editor, you’ll give them a little space.
• Authors who are streamlined in their communication. Always—from the very first hello to after your book is out in the world—label your subject lines with something relevant to what’s in the email your sending. Try to set up the points you need responses to up front and don’t muddle down an email with too much meandering.
• Authors who don’t inundate. Avoid peppering an agent or editor with multiple emails containing tons of questions and points of clarification. If you are impulsive, sit on your hands. Whatever you have to say can wait an hour. If you know you tend to shoot off an email and then realize you have more to say, compose your email with no person in the SEND TO line and hold off until you have in your email everything you have to say for that day. And remember the point about being streamlined.
• Authors who are confident. If an agent or editor gives you what I would call a “soft rejection,” take that as an opportunity to ask if there’s a possibility to re-pitch your work in the future, or if there’s room to change up your project to make it right for the agent, or for the press. A soft rejection should be treated like an invitation, and if you can be collaborative in how you move forward in these conversations, it’s possible to land representation or a deal. Once you have a deal, know when to fight for something and when to back off. You shouldn’t take all of your editors’ suggestions per se, but you should understand that their edits usually speak to something your readers may need clarification around as well.
• Authors who are collaborative. Ask what you can do to make your book a success, especially when it comes to publicity and marketing. Your publisher will ask you for all kinds of information—your contacts especially—but being collaborative goes way beyond that. It means advocating for yourself, too. You might ask for publicity dollars for media training, for instance; or it might mean educating yourself on some aspect of publishing you don’t understand. Your editor can be a partner in all of this—advocating for you too. Becoming an author is a big responsibility, and to do it well requires a team mentality. Your agent and each player at your publishing house are all working toward the same goal—so be an interested and helpful party.
• Authors who are curious and flexible. If there’s something you don’t know the answer to, ask. If you discover some secret success formula from another author, share it with your agent or editor and see what they think. It’s okay to think outside the box, but if your editor tells you that your idea doesn’t make sense for your book or your campaign, don’t try to argue with them. Ask them if they think the idea you’re presenting is just a bad idea in general, or if it’s something you might run with on your own. Sometimes editors and publicists are just stretched thin.
• Authors who are respectful, but not reverent. In my experience, most agents and editors want to work with people they can imagine hanging out with. If you treat your agent or editor like a demigod, it’s awkward for them. Mostly, we’re book nerds, not expecting you to treat us like celebrities—though there are a few celeb agents in New York I can imagine being a little bit in awe of. For the most part, though, be professional, but also be yourself.
• Authors who are good partners. Agents and editors are all overwhelmed. Not a single one is sitting around looking for an author with “potential” whose book they can fix to make it a bestseller. All of them would much prefer signing an author who has their shit together, who’s responsive to feedback, and who pulls more than their share. Be a workhorse and reap the benefits of the relationship.
• Authors who make logical and dispassionate arguments. Your job as an author is never to allow yourself to be steamrolled or to go against what you think is in your book’s best interest. However, too many authors let their emotions get the best of them in the agent and/or editorial relationship. If you have a bone to pick with your editor and you have an agent, let them handle the correspondence for you. If you don’t have an agent, ask for a phone call, or send a measured response to your editor that is sound and makes sense. I’ve seen too many authors too many times alienate their editors by being unreasonable and honestly childish over cover design, editorial and marketing decisions, and/or not getting what they want in the publishing process. It’s hard to negotiate these spots because they feel sticky, which is why, if you’re not good with confrontation or tend to operate from an emotional place, you need to approach these moments gently, wisely, and sometimes with a moderator.
• Authors who show gratitude. Share your enthusiasm and appreciation when your agent or editor does right by you. When your agent sells your book, or when your project is complete, consider sending flowers, or at the bare minimum sending a note (snail mail) letting them know how grateful you are for all the work they’ve done on your behalf. My sense is that some authors are so busy and/or self-consumed in the aftermath of their book coming out that they forget these small gestures, but they go a long way. The acknowledgments section of your book is not the only place or time to say thank you!